5 education stories in 2018 that signal a growing appetite for change

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A lot of systemic education issues found their way into the media spotlight, signaling a growing appetite for change — in how students’ health needs are met in school, in how students are disciplined, in how school safety is addressed and more.

From start to finish, 2018 has been a year filled with high-profile leadership changes in the education sector. Early on, Minnesota State rebooted its search for a new chancellor — a process that ended in the system’s interim chancellor, Devinder Malhotra, being selected to serve on a more permanent basis. Closing in on the end of the year, the University of Minnesota concluded its own search for its next top leader, naming Joan Gabel its 17th president.

In between these two higher education bookends, the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board, the state board of teaching, appointed a new executive director. Then the state Legislature rushed to fill a vacated U of M Board of Regents seat. Two newcomers were elected to join the Minneapolis Public Schools board.

And on Dec. 20 Gov.-elect Tim Walz named Mary Cathryn Ricker education commissioner and Dennis Olson Jr. commissioner of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. 

But this year was about more than a changing of guards. A lot of systemic education issues found their way into the media spotlight, signaling a growing appetite for change — in how students’ health needs are met in school, in how students are disciplined, in how school safety is addressed and more. Along these lines, here’s a recap of five stories that defined this year’s education beat.

1. A deep dive into the school nurse shortage

State officials like to boast about Minnesota’s top-ranking status in areas of health, educational achievement and employment rates. But the state’s inadequate investment in student support professionals — the licensed counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses that schools employ to work on-site — tells a different story.

At 792 students for every school counselor, Minnesota has the nation’s third-highest ratio. And even the counselors students do have access to are often stretched too thin with administrative tasks like scheduling.

Likewise, the full-time, licensed school nurse to student ratio is about 1:1,700. With just one full-time licensed school nurse for every 4.7 school buildings serving students statewide, this shortage is also severe. Yet it hasn’t garnered the same level of attention from the public and state lawmakers.

This story detailed a day in the life of a rural school nurse who shares one full-time position, rotating among four school buildings each day to complete her rounds. Monitoring diabetic students, managing flu season, assessing injuries and more, her caseload sheds light on the implications of this lesser-known shortage in Minnesota schools.

2. Districts face threat of legal action over discipline disparities

Taking aim at a longstanding issue, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights launched an investigation to identify school districts and charter schools with the greatest disciple disparities in suspensions and expulsions for students with disabilities and students of color.

In February the department went public with its findings, announcing that its list of top offenders included 43 districts and charter schools — all of which had the option to enter into a settlement agreement with the department, or face legal charges. This news story laid out the details of that investigation and why it matters.

To date, 41 of those identified have entered into agreements with the department. The action plans that they’ve submitted include things like professional development training for teachers and staff and implementing Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports systems to take a less punitive approach to behavior issues. The details of all submitted action plans can be found here.

3. Students take the lead on the school safety debate

In the heart of this year’s state legislative session, students from across Minnesota organized marches and school walkouts to draw attention to the recurring issue of school shootings. While their efforts were part of a national student-led movement calling for gun reform, spurred by survivors of a recent school shooting in Florida, local demonstrations outside of the Capitol and school walkouts took on a very grassroots, localized feel.

Using social media to connect and organize, Minnesota students took center stage in the fight for gun-control legislation — a highly politicized ask that Gov. Mark Dayton chose not to include in his own school safety plan, in the interest of not thwarting related efforts like increased funding for student mental health services and physical safety improvements for school buildings.

This story spotlights the impressive efforts of a few student leaders, as they lobbied state legislators in March to advance gun-control reforms. While their agenda didn’t advance this year, it’s likely that they’ll be back at it again this upcoming session.

4. Diversity boom expands beyond metro area schools

It’s no secret that Minnesota’s student population is becoming more and more diverse. But in analyzing student data in each district for this story, it turns out the footprint of this student diversity boom is quickly expanding beyond metro area districts.

There are now 27 public school districts in Minnesota where students of color comprise the majority of the student body — double the number there was just five years ago. Today, nearly a quarter of students in public school districts in Minnesota are in majority-minority districts.

As more and more districts scramble to respond to the new needs presented by these recent changes in student demographics — with efforts like building up English language learner services, creating a more inclusive school environment, and diversifying their teacher workforce — the appetite among educators and school administrators for resources and best practices has continued to grow. Mounting pressure to tackle the state’s persistent achievement gap is no longer confined to the Twin Cities.

5. Reading instruction debate gets national attention

According to the latest state assessments, only 56 percent of fourth-graders tested proficient in reading. That number has remained relatively stagnant for years. Broken down by race and special status, the proficiency rates are even more alarming.

So when Emily Hanford’s APM Reports audio documentary on the science of reading went viral in the education news world, it generated a great deal of interest among Minnesota educators. Inspired by Hanford’s piece, this localized story explored the state of the reading war in Minnesota, where the debate seems to have shifted.

By and large, educators and professors are no longer debating whether phonics-based instruction — equipping students with the skills needed to decode words — is necessary to teaching literacy. Rather, they continue to be divided over how, and to what extent, phonics instruction should be delivered.

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Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Rod Loper on 12/28/2018 - 09:34 am.

    The failure of the legislature to fund school counselors and school nurses is a continuing shame and one cause of all the other issues alluded to in this article.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 12/28/2018 - 10:21 am.

    “only 56 percent of fourth-graders tested proficient in reading…”

    Let me guess…”we need more money for the trickle down, government owed and union led education monopoly!”

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 12/28/2018 - 01:08 pm.

      Mr. Rotzman, it’s always true that publicly funded schools and other government programs should have accountability for the money they spend. As a former teacher, I have some sympathy with that argument. For example, the exorbitant amounts of money schools spend on 1-to-1 technology platforms is ridiculous and does not conclusively prove educational outcomes. However, your unlettered comment about the ‘education monopoly’ seems to suggest you would favor either a further expansion of charter schools or some sort of voucher system which could be used for religious schools. Simply put, charter schools have not demonstrated the ability to close the achievement gap beyond anecdotal schools and students. But even more detrimental would be taxpayer funded vouchers for religious schools. At a time when the United States lags behind in critical science and math scores, the willing and purposeful stultification of students education through religious schooling is not a serious position. After all, the US was created as a secular nation, beautifully and lucidly stated in the constitution.

      This article, as any other article about, education misses the mark. The Achievement Gap, underlying every point in this article, is an artificial construction. What rather exists, is an opportunity gap. As schools, we are not successfully linking students to career pathways. Schools and teachers need to do a better job of tracking students (always a dirty word for some) and linking to career opportunities. For example, I taught high school English, and the key word was always differentiation, which in my opinion is racist propaganda which limits education outcomes, especially for diverse students. Some of the students I had, who were so far behind academically, should have been moved over into a career orientated field. It was a waste of time to have these students who were so disruptive, and didn’t care about learning and try to appease them and make them happy. Alignment into more proper career-orientated classes or expulsion would be a much more effective use of taxpayer dollars.

      Excuse the lengthy explanation but I despise binary arguments like those that you postulated for complex subjects. The same goes for liberal arguments as well. To make a comment like that does a great disservice in trying to open a marketplace of ideas regarding significant problems within our educational system.

      Please respond.

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 12/31/2018 - 11:43 am.

        All 3 of my kids attended and graduated from Catholic schools. The tuition was no more than what public schools receive per pupil each year.

        They took their stultified educations to college (No remedial coursework was required) and are now enjoying satisfying careers in business and engineering.

        In addition, I’m proud to say that they all exhibit the highest moral and ethical character. I fully expect they will grant their own children the gift of stultifying, religious educations.

        • Submitted by David Lundeen on 01/02/2019 - 12:56 pm.

          That’s wonderful your children were able to receive a great education. I think Catholic schools are a great option for parents who don’t want to go the public route. That is not my objection. My objection is simply that we live in a secular democracy, and our tax dollars should not be used fund vouchers for students to attend religious schools. I do not want my tax dollars going to promote Catholic, Jewish, or Islamic schools for many reasons, among them being that religions already receive tax exempt status, and the teachings that would appear in some, but not all, religious schools, would be creationist based and innately irrational.

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/04/2019 - 08:12 am.

          Typically, Catholic grade school tuition is not the full cost of the education. The parish(es) involved almost invariably subsidize that cost, lowering the tuition.

          Similarly, for Catholic high schools, various fundraisers and financial support from alumni and past parents is often a significant source of financial support for the school. So again, the tuition synonymous with the “cost of education”.

          So, when you say the cost of your children’s Catholic education cost the same as public schools, are you factoring in the costs not covered by tuition?

          Further, did the Catholic school(s) involved accept all special needs students? Were there even any special needs students enrolled?

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 12/28/2018 - 11:52 am.

    K-12 is not preparing our children to be contributing citizens as adults. If you can not read, write in English and do math (problem solving) you can not be employed by 90% of all businesses. I’m sure more money will be the mantra chanted by many here at Minnpost.
    On a positive note, more and more folks are now recognizing what has been been true for decades, our educational system is failing our children. As long as the Education Department had the majority of tax payers hoodwinked into believing our children were just fine, nothing was going to change. This is one area where both sides of the political isle can agree, we need to get better in how we prepare our children educationally for their future.
    Don’t teach them what to think (past 30 years), teach them how to think. Put the trades back in High School. Phonics based reading works, teach it! 9×9 will always be 81, teach our children how to add, subtract, multiply and divide, then they can learn complex problem solving, common core is a joke.

  4. Submitted by Greg Fynboh on 12/28/2018 - 02:20 pm.

    I’d be more concerned if high school aged kids are at a 56% reading proficiency – that’s when you’ve really got a problem. In my opinion, helping to develop and nurture curiosity and critical thinking skills, especially before high school, would go a long way in solving public school problems and any problem in general.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 12/28/2018 - 04:42 pm.

      Greg, in the Minneapolis Public School District over 50% of 10th graders are not at grade level in reading. If you can’t read by 4th grade the school, teachers and district has let you down!!

      • Submitted by Greg Fynboh on 12/28/2018 - 08:44 pm.

        That statistic is frightening, Joe. You are right that kids should be reading in 4th grade. I may need to hone my own critical thinking skills. I keep thinking 4th graders are younger than they are. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Submitted by richard owens on 12/29/2018 - 07:39 pm.

    Education is compounding of people’s potential.
    Ignorance is the cost of leaving too many too far behind.

    jus sayin

  6. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/30/2018 - 06:13 pm.

    I believe in supplying alternative means of education through the public school system, but charter schools have too spotty a record and can’t necessarily overcome the real problems, which are poverty and dysfunctional families.

    Having been on the board of a small charitable foundation and having visited some of the agencies that the foundation funds, I find myself wondering how some young people are even alive after all they have gone through: homelessness, abuse, neglect, abandonment, undiagnosed health problems, parents who are walking disaster areas, deaths of multiple family members, having to work long hours to supplement the family income, PTSD from witnessing extreme violence or murder, rape by a family member resulting in pregnancy at age 12, or any combination of the above.

    For a student dealing with any of those problems, school may seem like a low priority, and failing to learn important material early on makes each succeeding grade more of a struggle.

    About fifteen to twenty years ago in Portland, I tutored street youth for their GEDs. Interestingly enough, they could all sound out words. What many hadn’t learned was how to read for meaning.

    For example, suppose I were to tell you to read the paragraph above and then ask, “How long ago did I tutor street kids? For what purpose? What could they all do?” I bet every MinnPost reader could answer these questions correctly. Yet many of the street youth could not perform a similar task.

    Their knowledge of arithmetic stopped somewhere around the third or fourth grade level, about the time that long division is introduced.

    I asked them why they thought they had problems with these skills, and the most typical answer was, “The classes were so large that the teachers didn’t have time to help, and there wasn’t anyone at home who could help me, either.” In Oregon, where a tax limitation law led to school districts not being able to keep up with inflation, large class sizes were indeed a problem.

    By the way, the problems I mentioned above are not limited to poor or single-parent families. One of the side effects of attending an Ivy League school for graduate school was that I got over any envy I ever had of those who grew up wealthy. While wealthy youth don’t have to worry about homelessness and don’t have to work at fast food outlets to keep the family from starving, they can experience every kind of physical and emotional trauma that youth from poor families do: abuse, neglect, rape, and especially parents who are one-person, narcissistic soap operas. A couple of the street youth I encountered had last names that were recognizable to any Portland resident.

    So what were these “poor little rich kids” doing at an Ivy League school? Easy. Their parents were major donors. As a teaching assistant, I had to deal with a number of students who didn’t belong at a high-powered school.

    Children and youth who come out of dysfunctional backgrounds need a lot of attention and support. You can’t just put them through a one-size-fits-all mass process and expect good results.

    That’s why we need small classes, especially in the early years. I think that anyone who has ever taught at any level understands the qualitative difference between a small class, where you can get to know all the students as individuals and figure out the best approach for each one, and a large class, where the teacher has to find a single approach that kind of works for most students, knowing that the most capable students will be bored and the less capable students will be unable to keep up.

    The charter and private schools that work are the ones that attract students who parents are interested in and knowledgeable about education. If you look at the annual report of test scores in the Star-Tribune, you will see that many charter schools, especially the ones that recruit children from poor families, perform less well than the public schools, sometimes far less well.. (Yes, I know it’s hard for the “public bad, private good” crowd to believe, but it’s true. See for yourself the next time the scores are published.)

    And what do the best private schools boast about? Small classes, a curriculum that emphasizes the arts and humanities along with STEM, lots of extra-curricular activities…and tuition that starts at $25,000 per year for elementary school.

    The typically simplistic right-wing approach to school reform seems to be to push for charter schools or vouchers to attend private schools and to bash teachers and their unions. (Never mind that all the countries whose students out-perform American students have unionized teachers.)

    If you think think that solving America’s education problems is simple, you need to volunteer at an agency that serves low-income children or youth and then imagine yourself as a teacher dealing with dozens of them every day.

    • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 12/31/2018 - 11:56 am.

      “homelessness, abuse, neglect, abandonment, undiagnosed health problems, parents who are walking disaster areas…”

      You have identified the biggest contributors to the cycle of failure and dependence. And yet you loudly champion leftist policies that excuse, reward and encourage them.


      • Submitted by richard owens on 12/31/2018 - 05:01 pm.

        Curtis: Teachers don’t choose the students or their readiness or their mental health or their problems.

        Your post is rude and seems to blame teachers.

        I don’t even care WHY.

        IMO you should put the thought and time into your posts that she did if you want serious engagement.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/02/2019 - 06:27 am.

        Because right wing policy designed to increase the suffering of those so afflicted is worse, and mean-spirited to boot?

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/02/2019 - 05:23 pm.

        It was the right-wingers in Oregon who treated tax cuts as the cure for everything and who have been steadily starving the public schools (and the state parks and every other public good) since 1990.

        It was right-wingers, who back in the 1960s, laid down the requirement that women who had “a man in the house” not be eligible for public assistance, even if there was high unemployment in the area.

        It’s right-wingers who are against raising the minimum wage enough so that a person can survive on only one 40-hour job.

        It is right-wingers who continually bash teachers–perhaps with the intent of ruining their morale and driving increasing numbers out of the profession.

        It is right-wingers who slut-shame single mothers, and yet don’t want them to have affordable birth control, access to abortions, affordable day care, or public transit adequate enough to spare them the expense of a car. I guess they believe that poor women should all be life-long virgins. (Hint: Ain’t gonna happen.)

        It is right-wingers who are for throwing drug users and other petty criminals into prison for years at a time, thereby removing fathers from poor communities and creating de facto orphans who have to be raised by relatives or in foster care.

        It is right-wingers, both Republican and Democratic, who write blank checks for the Pentagon but whine, “There’s no money, look at the deficit, we’re going to turn into North Korea or Venezuela, sucking at the government teat, makers and takers, winning votes with free stuff,” and so on when someone suggests doing something that will improve the quality of life for all Americans.

    • Submitted by Kent Fralish on 01/02/2019 - 11:56 am.

      Spot on!!!
      Teach the parents to be parents.
      They are the biggest teacher of their children, yet many don’t get it.

      • Submitted by richard owens on 01/02/2019 - 07:13 pm.

        Kids need to get a decent education, no matter how stupid, single, mean, poor, psycho their parents were.

        Others can work on making “good child-rearing parents”- that’s not legislative. We can’t even house everybody these days. All single? NAH.

        Kids get their developmental; years once. It’s really important for all their subsequent years as workers, parents and citizens.
        Education is part of democracy.

        Parents are subjective to dysfunction in early trials.

        Teachers help.

  7. Submitted by joe smith on 01/01/2019 - 01:57 pm.

    School vouchers and school choice is not about bashing teachers it’s about competition. When one school has more success in educating students it will attract more students and more money will come to them. The other schools will adopt a curriculum that works better at teaching reading, writing, math and problem solving. In the end the winners are the children, the way it should be.
    We all know the definition of insanity, let’s please stop doing the same old thing and expecting different results.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 01/02/2019 - 01:06 pm.

      I’m sorry to have to say this Mr. Smith, but you give the awful impression that you’ve never read anything contrary to your viewpoint. Public schools serve a public service, and as such it should be unnacceptable that some schools are “better” than others, when in fact the quantitative difference between these schools chiefly reflects poverty, not student aptitude. We should be focusing on creating funding equity among all public schools so that poor students can finally receive an equal education and schools don’t have to keep misbehaving students which detrimentally degrade the school atmosphere to maintain funding. As a former teacher and moderate Democrat, I hate the fact that we spend so many tax dollars on stuff like food stamps and the like. Rather, I’d love to see a bargain between political parties which increases public school funding and creates career opportunities for all students while cutting back food stamp spending over time.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/02/2019 - 08:41 pm.

      Completely false. School vouchers are a proven failure. But you are correct that it is insane that people keep trying to bring back that nonsense over and over again.

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